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University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation

Revisiting the Emboldening Power of Nuclear Weapons

November 28, 2022
Kyungwon Suh


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Kyungwon Suh, an IGCC postdoctoral fellow, analyzes whether nuclear weapons make states more aggressive.

Do nuclear weapons make their possessors more aggressive? A series of high-profile aggressive actions by some nuclear-armed states appear to substantiate the argument that nuclear weapons enable aggressive behavior. Since its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia has continued to conduct brutal, coercive operations, including missile strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and population centers. North Korea has continued to test launch a wide array of missiles, one of which recently landed close to South Korea’s territorial waters. Policymakers also echo the view that nuclear weapons are more than simply defensive weapons. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review argues that Russian leaders have exploited their nuclear arsenal as a “shield” behind which they launched military aggression against Ukraine. When he was CIA Director, Formal Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that Pyongyang could use nuclear weapons “beyond self-preservation.”

If the argument that nuclear weapons promote aggression is correct, then it has significant implications for the international order. Specifically, allowing new members to join the nuclear club—like Iran, for example—could do real damage to regional and international security. One could therefore argue that Washington should use every available means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, as Iranian nuclear weapons could be a powerful source of Teheran’s revisionist behavior in the future. Similarly, although momentum is growing to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, a counterargument can be made that the United States should persist with denuclearization because a nuclear-armed North Korea would pose significant threats to its neighbors and regional peace.

Scholars are divided, however, as to whether nuclear weapons actually encourage states to act belligerently because evidence from research on nuclear weapons is mixed. For example, research on the cases of South Africa and Pakistan, as well as quantitative data analysis, suggests that nuclear weapons can fuel military aggression. Others disagree, however, claiming that there is no strong evidence that nuclear-armed states tend to act more aggressively.

In my Journal of Conflict Research article, I revisited quantitative evidence on whether possessing nuclear weapons emboldens governments to be more aggressive. I focused on one key type of aggressive behavior: the initiation of militarized disputes between states by threatening, displaying, or using force.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.

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